Cryptographic Module Standards at a Crossroads after Snowden’s Revelations

Last week I participated in the third International Cryptographic Module Conference (ICMC), organized by the Cryptographic Module User Forum (CMUF), and concerned with the validation of cryptographic modules against government and international standards. You may think of cryptographic module validation as a dry topic, but it was quite an exciting conference, full of technical and political controversy. The technical controversy resulted from the fact that the standards are out of sync with current technology and it is not at all clear how they can be fixed. The political controversy resulted from the fact that, after Snowden’s revelations, it is not at all clear who should try to fix them. The organizers signalled that they were not afraid of controversy by inviting as keynote speakers both Phil Zimmerman, creator of PGP and co-founder of Silent Circle, and Marianne Bailey, Deputy CIO for Cybersecurity at the US Department of Defense, besides well known expert Paul Kocher of SSL fame. I enjoyed an exchange between Zimmerman and Bailey on the imbalance between defense and offense at the NSA and its impact on cybersecurity. Continue reading “Cryptographic Module Standards at a Crossroads after Snowden’s Revelations”

Virtual Tamper Resistance is the Answer to the HCE Conundrum

Host Card Emulation (HCE) is a technique pioneered by SimplyTapp and integrated by Google into Android as of 4.4 KitKat that allows an Android app running in a mobile device equipped with an NFC controller to emulate the functionality of a contactless smart card. Prior to KitKat the NFC controller routed the NFC interface to a secure element, either a secure element integrated in a carrier-controlled SIM, or a different secure element embedded in the phone itself. This allowed carriers to block the use of Google Wallet, which competes with the carrier-developed NFC payment technology that used to be called ISIS and is now called SoftCard. (I’m not sure if or how they blocked Google Wallet in devices with an embedded secure element.) Using HCE, Google Wallet can run on the host CPU where it cannot be blocked by carriers. (HCE also paves the way to the development of a variety of NFC applications, for payments or other purposes, as Android apps that do not have to be provisioned to a secure element.)

But the advantages of HCE are offset by a serious disadvantage. An HCE application cannot count on a secure element to protect payment credentials if the device is stolen, which is a major concern because more then three million phones where stolen last year in the US alone. If the payment credentials are stored in ordinary persistent storage supplied by Android, a thief who steals the device can obtain the credentials by rooting the device or, with more effort, by opening the device and probing the flash memory.

Last February Visa and MasterCard declared their support for HCE. Continue reading “Virtual Tamper Resistance is the Answer to the HCE Conundrum”

Implementing Virtual Tamper Resistance without a Secure Channel

Last week I made a presentation to the GlobalPlatform 2014 TEE Conference, co-authored with Karen Lewison, on how to provide virtual tamper resistance for derived credentials and other data stored in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE). I’ve put the slides online as an animated PowerPoint presentation with speaker notes.

An earlier post, also available on the conference blog, summarized the presentation. In this post I want to go over a technique for implementing virtual tamper resistance that we have not discussed before. The technique is illustrated with animation in slides 9 and 10. The speaker notes explain the animation steps.

Virtual tamper resistance is achieved by storing data in a device, encrypted under a data protection key that is entrusted to a key storage service and retrieved from the service after the device authenticates to the service using a device authentication credential, which is regenerated from a protocredential and a PIN. (Some other secret or combination of secrets not stored in the device can be used instead of a PIN, including biometric samples or outputs of physical unclonable functions.) The data protection key is called “credential encryption key” in the presentation, which focuses on the protection of derived credentials. The gist of the technique is that all PINs produce well-formed device authentication credentials, Continue reading “Implementing Virtual Tamper Resistance without a Secure Channel”

Smart Cards, TEEs and Derived Credentials

This post has also been published on the blog of the GlobalPlatform TEE Conference.

Smart cards and mobile devices can both be used to carry cryptographic credentials. Smart cards are time-tested vehicles, which provide the benefits of low cost and widely deployed infrastructures. Mobile devices, on the other hand, are emerging vehicles that promise new benefits such as built-in network connections, a built-in user interface, and the rich functionality provided by mobile apps.

Derived Credentials

It is tempting to predict that mobile devices will replace smart cards, but this will not happen in the foreseeable future. Mobile devices are best used to carry credentials that are derived from primary credentials stored in a smart card. Each user may choose to carry derived credentials on zero, one or multiple devices in addition to the primary credentials in a smart card, and may obtain derived credentials for new devices as needed. The derived credentials in each mobile device are functionally equivalent to the primary credentials, and are installed into the device by a device registration process that does not need to duplicate the user proofing performed for the issuance of the primary credentials.

The term derived credentials was coined by NIST in connection with credentials carried by US federal employees in Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards and US military personnel in Common Access Cards (CAC); but the concept is broadly applicable. Derived credentials can be used for a variety of purposes, Continue reading “Smart Cards, TEEs and Derived Credentials”

Forthcoming Presentation at the GlobalPlatform TEE Conference

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be making a presentation at the forthcoming GlobalPlatform 2014 TEE Conference (September 29-30, Santa Clara, CA). Here are the title and abstract:

Virtual Tamper Resistance for a TEE

Derived credentials are cryptographic credentials carried in a mobile device that are derived from credentials carried in a smartcard. The term was coined by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in connection with US Federal employee credentials, but the concept is generally applicable to use cases encompassing high-security enterprise IDs, payment cards, national identity cards, driver licenses, etc.

The Trusted User Interface feature of a TEE can protect the passcode that activates derived credentials from being phished or intercepted by malware, the user being instructed to only enter the passcode when a Security Indicator shows that the touchscreen is controlled by the Secure OS of the TEE. Besides protecting the passcode, it is also necessary to protect the derived credentials themselves from an adversary who physically captures the device. This requires resistance against tampering. Physical tamper resistance can be provided by a Secure Element accessed from the TEE through the TEE Secure Element API, thus combining protection of the passcode against malware with protection of the credentials against physical capture.

Derived credentials can also be protected against physical capture using cloud-based virtual tamper resistance, which is achieved by encrypting them with a key stored in a secure back-end. The device uses a separate credential derived in part from the activation passcode to authenticate to the back-end and retrieve the encryption key. A novel technique makes it possible to do so without exposing the passcode to an offline guessing attack, so that a short numeric passcode is sufficient to provide strong security.

Physical tamper resistance and virtual tamper resistance have overlapping but distinct security postures, and can be combined, if desired, to maximize security.

Derived Credentials in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE)

In the previous post I discussed the storage of derived credentials (Federal credentials carried in a mobile device instead of a PIV/CAC card) in a software token, i.e. in a cryptographic module implemented entirely in software, whose contents are stored in ordinary flash memory. In this post I will discuss the storage of derived credentials in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE).

Malware Attacks

As discussed in the previous post and in a technical report, it is possible to protect derived credentials stored in ordinary flash storage by encrypting them under a high entropy key-wrapping key kept in a secure back-end, which the mobile device retrieves by authenticating to the back-end with a key pair regenerated from a protocredential and an activation passcode.

This provides effective protection against an adversary who captures the device while the software token is not active, preventing the adversary from extracting or using the credentials. But it does not provide protection against malware running on the device while the legitimate user is using the device. Such malware can carry out the following attacks:

  1. It can use the derived credentials, by issuing instructions to the software token after it has been activated by the legitimate user.
  2. It can read the plaintext derived credentials from the flash storage after the software token has been activated, and transmit them to the adversary responsible for the malware, who can then use them at will on a different machine.
  3. It can capture the activation passcode by phishing or intercepting it. In a phishing attack, malware prompts the user for the passcode while masquerading as legitimate code that needs the passcode, such as token activation code. In an interception attack, malware gets the passcode after it has been obtained from the user by legitimate code.

The first of these attacks may be impossible to prevent once privileged malware is running on the mobile device without the user being aware of it. But the second and third attacks can be prevented using a TEE as we shall see below; and preventing them is important because they are more damaging than the first attack.

The second attack, extracting the credentials and sending them to the adversary, is more damaging than the first because it cannot be stopped by recovering or wiping the stolen device. Use of an authentication or signature private key cannot be stopped until the associated certificate is revoked and relying parties become aware of the revocation. Correspondents should avoid sending messages encrypted under a symmetric key wrapped by a “key management” public key after becoming aware that the key management certificate has been revoked. But there is no time limit for using a key management private key to decrypt earlier messages that the adversary may have previously captured or may capture in the future, e.g. by breaching the security of a MS Exchange server containing older encrypted messages.

The third attack is even more damaging for several reasons. First, it enables the first two attacks, because once it has the passcode, malware can activate the software token and use and extract the plaintext derived credentials. Second, if the adversary captures the device after using malware to obtain the passcode, the adversary can use the device, or install more comprehensive malware that is able to extract the credentials. Third, the passcode may be independently exploitable because it may be used for other purposes.

A TEE has security features that make it possible to prevent the second and third attacks.

Features of a TEE

A TEE is a computing environment provided by a secure OS running on the same processor as a normal OS. One or more trusted applications (TAs) run under the secure OS. A hardware bus architecture ensures that a portion of the flash storage can only be accessed by the secure OS. Both OSes can access the touchscreen, but a security indicator lets the user know when the screen is controlled by the secure OS and the user interface can be trusted. GlobalPlatform is developing TEE specifications, including a Trusted User Interface API specification, which can be downloaded from the GlobalPlatform site. TEEs are provided by ARM Cortex-A processors, where a TEE is also referred to as a TrustZone. A TA running in a TEE can be used to implement a cryptographic module in which derived credentials can be stored and used.

Using a TEE to Protect Derived Credentials

Derived credentials stored and used in a cryptographic module implemented within a TEE can be protected against the second malware attack discussed above by making their private keys unextractable from the cryptographic module. The ability to mark private keys as being unextractable is a typical feature of cryptographic modules. The PKCS #11 cryptographic module API, for example, allows private keys to be made non-extractable by setting the value of their CKA_EXTRACTABLE attribute to CK_FALSE. The forthcoming TEE Functional API, mentioned in the TEE white paper, will no doubt allow private keys stored in a cryptographic module within a TEE to be made non-extractable as well.

Furthermore, derived credentials stored in a cryptographic module within a TEE can be protected against the third malware attack using the Trusted User Interface feature of the TEE. The passcode can be prompted for by the TA that implements the cryptographic module, and the user can be instructed to only enter the passcode when a Security Indicator shows that the touchscreen is controlled by the Secure OS of the TEE. The passcode is then protected against phishing and interception by malware, assuming that all TAs can be trusted and that the secure OS is not infected by malware. The latter assumption is motivated by the fact that the secure OS is simpler than the normal OS and presents a much smaller attack surface.

Virtual Tamper Resistance

Using the same processor and a portion of the same storage for the secure OS as for the normal OS has important benefits. It provides greater performance for the secure OS than would typically achieved by a secondary processor located in a secure element, and it saves the cost of the secure element. On the other hand, it means that a TEE is not expected to provide much, if any, tamper resistance. Indeed, the TEE Secure Element API, available at the GlobalPlatform site, is concerned with using together a TEE and a secure element, with the TEE providing a Trusted User Interface, and the secure element providing tamper resistance.

(BTW, some secure elements do provide serious tamper resistance, but tamper resistance is never absolute. A fascinating description of the elaborate anti-tampering countermeasures in a family of Infineon chips, and how they were defeated by an attacker with no insider knowledge, can be found in an 80-minute video demonstration—broken down into ten eight-minute segments—presented at Black Hat 2010.)

But the lack of tamper resistance in a TEE can be remedied using the same technique that I described in the previous post as a solution to the problem of protecting derived credentials stored in a software token. Encrypting the derived credentials under a high entropy key-wrapping key, kept in a secure back-end and retrieved by authenticating to the back-end with a key pair regenerated from a protocredential and an activation passcode, can be viewed as a form of cloud-based virtual tamper resistance.

Combining such virtual tamper resistance with the TEE Trusted User Interface feature would make it possible to implement a cryptographic module that would protect both the derived credentials and their activation passcode.

Protecting Derived Credentials without Secure Hardware in Mobile Devices

NIST has recently released drafts of two documents with thoughts and guidelines related to the deployment of derived credentials,

and requested comments on the drafts by April 21. We have just sent our comments and we encourage you to send yours.

Derived credentials are credentials that are derived from those in a Personal Identity Verification (PIV) card or Common Access Card (CAC) and carried in a mobile device instead of the card. (A CAC card is a PIV card issued by the Department of Defense.) The Electronic Authentication Guideline, SP 800-63, defines a derived credential more broadly as:

A credential issued based on proof of possession and control of a token associated with a previously issued credential, so as not to duplicate the identity proofing process.

A PIV/CAC card may carry a PIV authentication credential, a digital signature credential, a current key management credential and up to 20 retired key management credentials, each credential consisting of a private key and an associated certificate that contains the corresponding public key. The digital signature private key is used for signing email messages, and the key management keys for decrypting symmetric keys used to encrypt email messages. The retired key management keys are needed to decrypt old messages that have been saved encrypted. The PIV authentication credential is mandatory for all users, while the digital signature credential and the current key management credential are mandatory for users who have government email accounts.

A mobile device may similarly carry an authentication credential, a digital signature credential, and current and retired key management credentials. Although this is not fully spelled out in the NIST documents, the current and retired key management private keys in the mobile device should be able to decrypt the same email messages as those in the card, and therefore should be the same as those in the card, except that we see no need to limit the number of retired key management private keys to 20 in the mobile device. The key management private keys should be downloaded to the mobile device from the escrow server that should already be in use today to recover from the loss of a PIV/CAC card containing those keys. On the other hand the authentication and digital signature key pairs should be generated in the mobile device, and therefore should be different from those in the card.

In a puzzling statement, SP 800-157 insists that only an authentication credential can be considered a “derived PIV credential”:

While the PIV Card may be used as the basis for issuing other types of derived credentials, the issuance of these other credentials is outside the scope of this document. Only derived credentials issued in accordance with this document are considered to be Derived PIV credentials.

Nevertheless, SP 800-157 discusses details related to the storage of digital signature and key management credentials in mobile devices in informative appendix A and normative appendix B.

Software Tokens

The NIST documents provide guidelines regarding the lifecycle of derived credentials, their linkage to the lifecycle of the PIV/CAC card, their certificate policies and cryptographic specifications, and the storage of derived credentials in several kinds of hardware cryptographic modules, which the documents refer to as hardware tokens, including microSD tokens, UICC tokens, USB tokens, and embedded hardware tokens. But the most interesting, and controversial, aspect of the documents concerns the storage of derived credentials in software tokens, i.e. in cryptographic modules implemented entirely in software.

Being able to store derived credentials in software tokens would mean being able to use any mobile device to carry derived credentials. This would have many benefits:

  1. Federal agencies would have the flexibility to use any mobile devices they want.
  2. Federal agencies would be able to use inexpensive devices that would not have to be equipped with special hardware for secure storage of derived credentials. This would save taxpayer money and allow agencies to do more with their IT budgets.
  3. Mobile authentication and secure email solutions used by the Federal Government would be affordable and could be broadly used in the private sector.

The third benefit would have huge implications. Today, the requirement to use PIV/CAC cards means that different IT solutions must be developed for the government and for the private sector. IT solutions specifically developed for the government are expensive, while private sector solutions too often rely on passwords instead of cryptographic credentials. Using the same solutions for the government and the private sector would lower costs and increase security.


But there is a problem. The implementation of software tokens hinted at in the NIST documents is not secure.

NISTIR 7981 describes a software token as follows:

Rather than using specialized hardware to store and use PIV keys, this approach stores the keys in flash memory on the mobile device protected by a PIN or password. Authentication operations are done in software provided by the application accessing the IT system, or the mobile OS.

And SP 800-157 adds the following:

For software implementations (LOA-3) of Derived PIV Credentials, a password-based mechanism shall be used to perform cryptographic operations with the private key corresponding to the Derived PIV Credential. The password shall meet the requirements of an LOA-2 memorized secret token as specified in Table 6, Token Requirements per Assurance Level, in [SP800-63].

Taken together, these two paragraphs seem to suggest that the derived credentials should be stored in ordinary flash memory storage encrypted under a data encryption key derived from a PIN or password satisfying certain requirements. What requirements would ensure sufficient security?

Smart phones are frequently stolen, therefore we must assume that an adversary will be able to capture the mobile device. After capturing the device the adversary can immediately place it in a metallic box or other Faraday cage to prevent a remote wipe. The contents of the flash memory storage may be protected by the OS, but in many Android devices, the OS can be replaced, or rooted, with instructions for doing so provided by Google or the manufacturer. OS protection may be more effective in some iOS devices, but since a software token does not provide any tamper resistance by definition, we must assume that the adversary will be able to extract the encrypted credentials. Having done so, the adversary can mount an offline password guessing attack, testing each password guess by deriving a data encryption key from the password, decrypting the credentials, and checking if the resulting plaintext contains well-formed credentials. To carry out the password guessing attack, the adversary can use a botnet. Botnets with tens of thousands of computers can be easily rented by the day or by the hour. Botnets are usually programmed to launch DDOS attacks, but can be easily reprogrammed to carry out password cracking attacks instead. The adversary has at least a few hours to run the attack before the authentication and digital signature certificates are revoked and the revocation becomes visible to relying parties; and there is no time limit for decrypting the key management keys and using them to decrypt previously obtained encrypted email messages.

To resist such an attack, the PIN or password would need to have at least 64 bits of entropy. According to Table A.1 of the Electronic Authentication Guideline (SP 800-63), a user-chosen password must have more than 40 characters chosen appropriately from a 94-character alphabet to achieve 64 bits of entropy. Entering such a password on the touchscreen keyboard of a smart phone is clearly unfeasible.

SP 800-157 calls instead for a password that meets the requirements of an LOA-2 memorized secret token as specified in Table 6 of SP 800-63, which are as follows:

The memorized secret may be a randomly generated PIN consisting of 6 or more digits, a user generated string consisting of 8 or more characters chosen from an alphabet of 90 or more characters, or a secret with equivalent entropy.

The equivalent entropy is only 20 bits. Why does Table 6 require so little entropy? Because it is not concerned with resisting an offline guessing attack against a password that is used to derive a data encryption key. It is instead concerned with resisting an online guessing attack against a password that is used for authentication, where password guesses can only be tested by attempting to authenticate to a verifier who throttles the rate of failed authentication attempts. In Table 6, the quoted requirement on the memorized secret token is coupled with the following requirement on the verifier:

The Verifier shall implement a throttling mechanism that effectively limits the number of failed authentication attempts an Attacker can make on the Subscriber’s account to 100 or fewer in any 30-day period.

and the necessity of the coupling is emphasized in Section 8.2.3 as follows:

When using a token that produces low entropy token Authenticators, it is necessary to implement controls at the Verifier to protect against online guessing attacks. An explicit requirement for such tokens is given in Table 6: the Verifier shall effectively limit online Attackers to 100 failed attempts on a single account in any 30 day period.

Twenty bits is not sufficient entropy for encrypting derived credentials, and requiring a password with sufficient entropy is not a feasible proposition.


But the problem has solutions. It is possible to provide effective protection for derived credentials in a software token.

One solution is to encrypt the derived credentials under a high-entropy key that is stored in a secure back-end and retrieved when the user activates the software token. The problem then becomes how to retrieve the high-entropy key from the back-end. To do so securely, the mobile device must authenticate to the back-end using a device-authentication credential stored in the mobile device, which seems to bring us back to square one. However, there is a difference between the device-authentication credential and the derived credentials stored in the token: the device-authentication credential is only needed for the specific purpose of authenticating the device to the back-end and retrieving the high-entropy key. This makes it possible to use as device-authentication credential a credential regenerated on demand from a PIN or password supplied by the user to activate the token and a protocredential stored in the device, in a way that deprives an attacker who captures the device of any information that would make it possible to test guesses of the PIN or password offline.

The device-authentication credential can consist, for example, of a DSA key pair whose public key is registered with the back-end, coupled with a handle that refers to a device record where the back-end stores a hash of the registered public key. In that case the protocredential consists of the device record handle, the DSA domain parameters, which are (p,q,g) with the notations of the DSS, and a random high-entropy salt. To regenerate the DSA key pair, a key derivation function is used to compute an intermediate key-pair regeneration key (KPRK) from the activation PIN or password and the salt, then the DSA private and public keys are computed as specified in Appendix B.1.1 of the DSS, substituting the KPRK for the random string returned_bits produced by a random number generator.

To authenticate to the back-end and retrieve the high-entropy key, the mobile device establishes a TLS connection to the back-end, over which it sends the device record handle, the DSA public key, and a signature computed with the DSA private key on a challenge derived from the TLS master secret. (Update—April 24, 2014: The material used to derive the challenge must also include the TLS server certificate of the back-end, due to a recently reported UKS vulnerability of TLS. See footnote 2 of the technical report.) The DSA public and private keys are deleted after authentication, and the back-end keeps the public key confidential. An adversary who is able to capture the device and extract the protocredential has no means of testing guesses of the PIN or password other than regenerating the DSA key pair and attempting online authentication to the back-end, which locks the device record after a small number of consecutive failed authentication attempts that specify the handle of the record.

An example of a derived credentials architecture that uses this solution can be found in a technical report.

Other solutions are possible as well. The device-authentication credential itself could serve as a derived credential, as we proposed earlier; SSO can then be achieved by sharing login sessions, as described in Section 7.5 of a another technical report. And I’m sure others solutions can be found.

Other Topics

There are several other topics related to derived credentials that deserve discussion, including the pros and cons of storing credentials in a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE), whether biometrics should be used for token activation, and whether derived credentials should be used for physical access. I will leave those topics for future posts.

Update (April 10, 2014). A post discussing the storage of derived credentials in a TEE is now available.

Closed-Loop vs. Open-Loop Authentication

This is the second of a series of posts discussing the paper A Comprehensive Approach to Cryptographic and Biometric Authentication from a Mobile Perspective.

In this post I want to take the time to explain and emphasize the distinction made in the paper between closed-loop authentication and open-loop authentication. This may seem an unimportant matter of vocabulary, but the distinction is essential for two reasons: first, because it helps understand the privacy posture of authentication technologies; second, because it leads to what we think is the best choice of cryptographic authentication technologies for mobile devices.

The concepts of closed-loop and open-loop authentication are defined in the introduction, and examples are given. In open-loop authentication, a party such as a certificate authority or, more generally a credential authority, issues a cryptographic credential to the user’s device, and then is “out of the loop” when the device presents the credential to a relying party. Credentials used in open-loop authentication are typically public key certificates, but could also be U-Prove tokens or Idemix anonymous credentials. In closed-loop authentication, on the other hand, the credential authority is involved in the authentication process, taking care of verifying possession of the credential by the device. In third-party closed-loop authentication, the credential authority is an identity or attribute provider, which communicates user attributes to a relying party after verifying that the device possesses the credential. In two-party authentication, there is only one party besides the user’s device, so two-party authentication can only be closed-loop authentication.

The distinction between closed-loop and open-loop authentication makes it possible to make two observations.

The first observation is that closed-loop authentication can rely on an uncertified key pair, i.e. a key pair that is not bound to any attributes by a certificate. (As a matter of vocabulary, we say that an uncertified key pair is registered by the device with the credential authority, rather than issued by the credential authority to the device, because the credential authority plays no role in generating the key pair; the paper refers to the credential authority as “the party that issues or registers the credential”.) An uncertified key pair can be used because the credential authority can store user attributes in its internal storage and retrieve them at authentication time. Therefore the attributes need not be included in the credential.

The second observation is that, in third-party closed-loop authentication, the credential authority, i.e. the identity or attribute provider, is informed of the authentication transaction and, typically, is told what relying party the user is authenticating to. This impinges on the user’s privacy, especially if the user has no choice of identity or attribute provider and does not trust the provider. This is not just a theoretical consideration. The identity providers most commonly used today have track records of privacy violations, and users are wary of being spied upon.

Some time ago, before being concerned with mobile authentication, we wrote a white paper proposing to eliminate this privacy drawback by using the browser to hide the identity of the relying party. However, this would require substantial modifications of core browser functionality. More recently, in an ICAM blog post, Anil John has proposed hiding the identity of the relying party behind a proxy. But that complicates authentication and serves only to shift the trust issue from the identity provider to the proxy.

Open-loop authentication, on the other hand, does not suffer from this privacy drawback.

These observations led us to the following choice of technologies for cryptographic authentication on mobile devices:

  • For the sake of simplicity, an uncertified key pair should be used for two-party authentication.
  • For the sake of privacy, open-loop authentication should be used when attributes are asserted by a third party, except in special cases. Credentials used in open-loop authentication could be public key certificates, U-Prove tokens, or Idemix anonymous credentials, depending on the privacy requirements, as explained in section 6.1.

There are two special cases where it makes sense to use third-party closed-loop authentication. One is social login, where an application is granted limited access to the user’s account at a social network such as Facebook or Twitter and authenticates the user as side-effect, by obtaining user attributes from the user’s profile. In social login, the social network is necessarily involved in the authentication transaction. The other is third-party login using as identity provider a personal data repository service that emphasizes privacy and is freely chosen and trusted by the user. A company participating in the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium (PDEC), for example, could play the role of identity provider.

However, this choice of technologies posed the problem of how to protect the credentials used in open-loop authentication against an adversary who captures the user’s mobile device, because the key pair regeneration method, which I mentioned in the previous post and will discuss in more detail in the next post, does not work for open-loop authentication.

We were happy to find a simple solution to that problem. As described in Section 5, key pair regeneration can be used to implement effective data protection against an adversary who captures the device, by encrypting the data under a data-encryption key, entrusting the key to a key storage service (or splitting it cryptographically across multiple services), and authenticating to the service(s) with a regenerated key pair to retrieve the key. A credential used in open-loop authentication can be protected as data in this way, thus benefiting indirectly from the security provided by the key pair regeneration technique.

In the next post I will finally get into the technical details of the paper.

Consistent Results from Inconsistent Data

This post is a continuation of my report on the NIST Cryptographic Key Management Workshop. In the previous post I said I had more to say about Rene Struik’s presentation [1] because there are multiple connections between his talk and our own presentation [2].

Dr. Struik proposed to use a physical uncloneable function (PUF) to generate a cryptographic key when the device is turned on. A PUF is a function implemented by a physical device that is difficult to predict and difficult to duplicate in a different device. One way of implementing a PUF is by applying stimuli to a device such as a chip, and reading responses that are not determined by the design of the chip, but depend instead on small random variations of the fabrication process within the tolerances of the process specification. For key generation, one stimulus is applied to the device, viz. power, and one response is produced, an uncloneable key.

One problem with this key generation method is that the response of the chip will be slightly different each time the device is turned on. Struik proposed an elegant method of removing these differences in order to obtain the same key consistently, and using these same differences as an entropy source for true random number generation.

I saw an interesting connection between Struick’s uncloneable key and the hardware key used by Apple for data protection in iOS, which I discussed during my talk.

Both keys are intended to be difficult to extract from the device where they are used. The hardware key is built into the silicon of a hardware encryption chip, whose interface does not allow the key to be exported from the chip; but no claims are made as to the chip being tamper resistant, so a well-equipped attacker may be able to read the key by probing the silicon. By contrast, the uncloneable key is not present in the device when the device is turned off and thus cannot be extracted by probing the silicon; but custom code running on the device could obtain the key when the device is turned on.

The two methods could be combined. For example, a device could contain an encryption chip that would generate an uncloneable key when power is applied, and the interface of the chip could prevent the key from being exported. However, custom code running on the device could still make use of the key, just like forensic tools are able to use the hardware key in the iPhone in brute-force attacks to crack the user’s passcode [3] [4].

Another connection between the two presentations is that they both proposed regenerating keys instead of storing them. In Struik’s presentation a symmetric key was regenerated from the physical properties of the device. In our presentation an RSA key pair was regenerated from user input (a PIN and/or a biometric sample). Our regeneration method is not applicable if there is no user, while Struik’s is; on the other hand, when used in a user-controlled mobile device, our method has the advantage that the key pair caonnot be obtained by custom code running on a device that has been lost or stolen.

But the most interesting connection, for me, was between Struik’s method for consistently producing the same uncloneable key from a succession of slightly different physical responses to power-on, and the method of Hao, Anderson and Daugman [5] for producing a consistent biometric key from a succession of genuine but slightly different iris image samples. (In our presentation, we proposed to use the method of Hao et al. in two- and/or three-factor authentication.) Both methods are based on the same ingenious adaptation of the error correction paradigm for producing consistent results from inconsistent data (which was pioneered by Juels and Wattenberg [6] for implementing fuzzy commitments as explained below).

Error correction techniques were originally intended, and are most often used, for correcting errors caused by the transmission of data over a noisy channel. Redundancy added to the data at the source makes it possible to correct a small number of errors at the destination. (A unit of data to which redundancy has been added is called a codeword.)

The small variations that occur between successive biometric samples or between successive samples of an uncloneable key are similar to errors produced by channel noise, but there is no correct source data to which redundancy could be added to eliminate errors. If fact, no errors are involved because, although one particular sample may serve as a reference, no sample is more correct than any other sample.

To remove data variations, error correction is used as follows:

  1. A random codeword c is generated by adding redundancy to a random string. The random codeword is of same length as a data sample, but is otherwise unrelated to any data sample.
  2. The random codeword c is bitwise x-ored with a reference sample r to produce helper data h:
    h = c r.
  3. When a new sample s is obtained, it is bitwise x-ored with the helper data to produce
    (cr) ⊕ s.
    Since x-or is associative, this is the same as
    c ⊕ (rs)
    and since r and s are similar, i.e. differ only in a few bits, the bit-string
    d = r s
    consists mostly of zeros. Bitwise x-oring c with d flips a few bits in c, thus having the same effect that could be produced by transmitting c over a noisy channel.
  4. Error correction is applied to recover the random codeword c from c d. If desired, c can then be bitwise x-ored with h = c r to obtain r.

What this accomplishes is that the same result is consistently produced from the variable sample s, as long as s in not too different from r. Either c or r can be used as the consistent result. Struik uses r, but I believe he could equivalently use c. Hao et al. use c, as their biometric key. In biometric applications, it is important to use c rather than r to avoid revealing the user’s biometric sample r, which could be a privacy violation. The codeword c contains no biometric information.

Juels and Wattenberg [6] used the same technique for implementing fuzzy commitments; as far as I can tell, they were the original inventors of the technique. In a cryptographic commitment scheme, a sender commits to a value by combining it with a witness to produce a blob, and sends the blob to a receiver. The sender can later reveal the value by providing the witness, which the receiver uses to compute the blob and verify that it coincides with the one received earlier. The receiver cannot derive the committed value from the blob without the witness, and only one value, the original committed value, can be successfully revealed by the sender. Juels and Wattenberg used the above technique to devise a fuzzy commitment scheme that tolerates small variations in the witness. With the above notations (different from their own), the committed value is the codeword c, the witness is r, and the blob is an ordered pair consisting of a conventional cryptographic hash of c and the helper data h. When the sender provides s to decommit the value, the receiver computes c as above and verifies that the hash of the computed c coincides with the hash in the blob received from the sender.

In their paper [6], Juels and Wattenberg made the connection with biometric authentication, but not with physical uncloneable functions.


[1] Rene Struik. Secure Key Storage and True Random Number Generation – An Overview. NIST Cryptographic Key Management Workshop, September 2012.
[2] Francisco Corella and Karen Lewison. Key Management Challenges of Derived Credentials and Techniques for Addressing Them. NIST Cryptographic Key Management Workshop, September 2012.
[3] Andrey Belenko. Overcoming iOS Data Protection to Re-enable iPhone Forensics. Black Hat USA, July-August 2011.
[4] Jean-Baptiste Bedrune and Jean Sigwald. iPhone data protection in depth. HITB Security Conference, May 2011.
[5] Feng Hao, Ross Anderson and John Daugman. Combining Cryptography with Biometrics Effectively. IEEE Transactions on Computers, volume 5, number 9, pages 1081 – 1088, 2006. Available as a Cambridge Computer Laboratory technical report.
[6] Ari Juels and Martin Wattenberg. A Fuzzy Commitment Scheme. ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security, 1999.

Effective Data Protection for Mobile Devices

With iOS 4 Apple introduced a new method for protecting the data stored in an iPhone, an iPad or an iPod when the device is lost or stolen and the user has locked the device with a passcode (usually a 4-digit PIN) [1]. Different categories of data are encrypted under different keys, which are arranged in a key hierarchy. Some of the keys in the hierarchy are derived from the user’s passcode. However, every key that is derived from the passcode is also derived from a hardware key, which is hardwired into the silicon of a “hardware encryption chip” and cannot be extracted from the device by a casual attacker. This means that an attacker who steals a mobile device, opens it, and extracts data encrypted under the passcode cannot mount an offline attack against the passcode. That is, the attacker cannot try passcodes at high speed to find the one that decrypts the data, because trying passcodes requires the hardware key.

But the protection provided by the hardware encryption key, at least in iOS 4 and 5, has been defeated [2] [3] [4]. An attacker who steals an iPhone does not need to open it. The attacker can exploit an OS vulnerability or a firmware vulnerability to run custom code on the device. The custom code can read the encrypted data and, although it cannot extract the hardware key, it can use it to mount an “offline” attack on the device itself. The practical effect of the hardware key is only to force the attacker to run the attack on the CPU of the device, which is relatively slow. But it only takes 40 minutes to try all 4-digit PINs [2].

Would the hardware encryption key provide effective protection if Apple succeeded in eliminating all vulnerabilities that make it possible to run custom code? (It does not seem to have eliminated them in iOS 6, used in the recently released iPhone 5 [5].) An attack would be more difficult, but probably still possible. The attacker would have to open the phone to read the contents of the flash memory. The attacker might be able to not just read but also modify the contents of the flash memory, and thus run custom code, which could then use the hardware key to mount an offline attack against the passcode. The attacker might even be able to probe the silicon of the hardware encryption chip and extract the hardware key. Nobody has claimed to have done any of these fancy attacks, but that’s because exploiting vulnerabilities is much easier.

In the white paper

we have proposed a data protection method for mobile devices that does not require a hardware key, or any tamper resistance, and is effective even if the attacker is able to run custom code on the device. The data is encrypted under a (symmetric) data encryption key that is entrusted to an online server provided by the mobile network operator, or by the mobile device manufacturer, or by the provider of the mobile operating system, or by an independent data protection service provider trusted by the user. (The key can also be split using Shamir’s secret sharing technique into n “portions” entrusted to n different servers, so that k portions are needed to reconstruct the key. For example, with n = 5 and k = 3, portions of the key can be distributed to 5 different servers, and any 3 of those portions can be used to reconstruct the key.)

The key, or the portions of a split key, are retrieved when the user authenticates to unlock the phone, with a PIN, an iris image taken by a camera carried by the device, or both. User authentication regenerates an RSA key pair which the device uses to authenticate to the server(s). When a PIN is used, it is not vulnerable to an offline attack by an attacker who tampers with the phone; and when an iris image is used, no biometric sample or template is stored anywhere.


[1] Apple. iOS: Understanding data protection. October 28, 2011.
[2] Vladimir Katalov. ElcomSoft Breaks iPhone Encryption, Offers Forensic Access to FileSystem Dumps. March 23, 2011.
[3] Andrey Belenko. Overcoming iOS Data Protection to Re-enable iPhone Forensics. 2011.
[4] Jean-Baptiste Bedrune and Jean Sigwald. iPhone data protection in depth.
[5] Emil Protalinski, The Next Web. The Apple iPhone 5 has reportedly been jailbroken. September 22, 2012.